Pasadena philanthropists Carol and Warner Henry are guardian angels for L.A. Opera and LACO.

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arol and Warner Henry are two of the biggest supporters of classical music in Los Angeles: She’s chairman of the executive committee of L.A. Opera’s board; he’s one of five board vice chairmen. When they met, he was already a huge fan of classical music, inspiring her to love it too — love it so much that she joined an early support group for opera, the Opera League, and then helped to found L. A. Opera in 1986.

Carol was born in Baltimore; her family moved to Chicago before heading to Sacramento when she was nine. “My main memories of growing up are of Sacramento,” she says during a recent afternoon in their dining room in Pasadena. The view out the window is of the lush green Arroyo, with the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. Warner, in contrast, is a native Angeleno, born at Good Samaritan Hospital downtown and raised in Hancock Park. 

As a young man he had been a serious jazz fan. While a Stanford student, he often went to San Francisco to enjoy the lively music scene. “I’d listen to Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey, they were Dixieland jazz people,” he recalls with a smile. “And there were a couple of new guys getting started — one named Dave Brubeck, another one named George Shearing. I started hitting the bars they were playing in. A professor said, ‘If you’re interested in them, you should take Music 1.’” So he did. “When I heard Bach, it was all over — he was the original boogie-er,” Warner continues. For him, listening to classical music is “a spiritual experience. It reaches a part of you that isn’t reached in any other way.”

After college, he served two years in the Navy before returning to Palo Alto for Stanford’s business school. Carol attended Stanford at the same time, but their paths didn’t cross until after both moved to Southern California. Warner returned in 1963 to join the family business, a glue and roofing products manufacturing company started by his father in 1933, and Carol settled in Manhattan Beach, teaching elementary school — “We taught every subject, including P. E.” The two were introduced by Warner’s cousin.

“When Carol and I started dating I was going to about 50 concerts a year, about one a week,” Warner says. “She just got on the train and came along with me.” He laughs, as Carol looks on with an approving smile.   

“Growing up in Sacramento, the music that I knew was musical theater,” Carol recalls. “We had very good musical theater, and we would also go to San Francisco for musical theater. And I loved it. Then I met Warner, who had studied classical music at Stanford, and I discovered this art form that was both wonderful musical theater and also beautiful music.” That art form was opera, and in the 1980s Carol became an early member of the Opera League, along with fellow Pasadenan Alice Coulombe and Lorraine Saunders of San Marino.  In the early days, they were a presenting organization, hosting touring opera companies, such as the New York City Opera. But they believed L.A. deserved its own opera company, and in 1986 L.A. Opera was born.

The Henrys’ longtime support of the acclaimed company is well known in the classical music community. “Carol and Warner are pioneering and visionary founders of L.A. Opera; they helped create a world-class opera company where none had existed before,” says L.A. Opera President/CEO Christopher Koelsch. “They’ve been an essential part of the company ever since those formational early seasons, and they’ve been incredibly generous with their time, wisdom, inspiration and philanthropy throughout it all. The company would be simply unimaginable without them.”

These days the opera presents a full season, with the prominent tenor Placido Domingo as general manager. The Henrys are quick to point out they don’t do the programming — “It’s totally up to the professionals,” Carol says — but they have created the Carol and Henry Warner Production Fund for Mozart Operas. “We both feel that Mozart’s music is the most beautiful of all,” she says.

L. A. Opera’s upcoming season includes two Mozart operas underwritten by the Henrys — The Magic Flute (Nov. 16 through Dec. 15 ) and The Marriage of Figaro (June 6 through 28, 2020), but the uninitiated should expect some surprises. This highly popular production of The Magic Flute, which originated at Berlin’s Komische Opera and returns for its third run here, uses original animation to provide the backdrop and the fantastical creatures. The singers are made up and dressed in costumes mimicking silent-era black-and-white film.

Also of particular note this season is a world premiere of Eurydice (February 2020) with music by Matthew Aucoin and libretto by Sarah Ruhl, which will retell the Orpheus myth from the heroine’s point of view. And of course there will be opera greats treading the boards. Renowned lyric soprano Renée Fleming stars in Adam Guettel’s Tony-winning musical, Light in the Piazza (October), about an American woman who takes her grown daughter on tour of romantic Florence in the 1950s. And in February and March 2020, Domingo sings the prominent role of the Duke of Nottingham in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

For those put off by opera’s stuffy reputation, Carol points out that there’s no formal dress code anymore, and there are special programs with relatively affordable pricing. The Aria Package for people under 40 also offers special events for socializing and the Newcomer Package includes backstage tours, preshow discussions and even easy payment plans.

While L. A. Opera declines to reveal how much the Henrys have donated, and the couple themselves are not boastful people, it’s fair to assume their contributions are generous. The Henrys helped set up the Founding Angels program for donors who give at least $1 million over a four-year period. They were also early supporters of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), and in 2017 they donated $1.5 million to the group to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was the largest gift in LACO’s history.

It’s certainly money well spent, given the wealth of musical talent available in this area, including those versed in the more “serious” arts. “We discovered that more than 50 years ago when Neville Mariner was auditioning musicians for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra,” says Warner. “He said, ‘I’m overcome by the quality of musicians in this city! Not in London, not in Berlin, not in Vienna, not even in New York are there musicians of such uniformly high quality.’ And it’s [because of] the studios that they were playing for, as well as the USC [Thornton] School of Music, and now, the Colburn. We are awash in great orchestral musicians.”